On Wednesday, after going more than a month without speaking, President Donald Trump conversed by phone with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top health expert who spent the preceding three days coming under withering attack by Trump’s top aides.
The conversation went well, people familiar with it said, and Trump later said he and Fauci were on the same team.
Yet the phone call – which broke a silent streak dating to early June – did not appear to presage a turning point in Trump’s response to coronavirus.
Instead, months into a raging pandemic whose US death toll is nearing 140,000, the news that Trump is finally speaking with the nation’s top infectious disease expert only underscored what has been an incoherent approach to a national crisis which has placed the President in dire political straits.
Even as Trump attempts to reconcile with the widely respected Fauci, there are few signs he plans to adopt a more forceful response to containing the virus:
He continues to insist that schools reopen in a matter of weeks, undercutting the advice his administration is offering on how to do so safely and cutting out health experts who are encouraging some states to return to lockdown.
He has repeatedly explained a surge in cases as a result of increased testing – “If we did half the testing we would have half the cases,” he insisted during a rambling appearance in the Rose Garden on Tuesday – a misleading argument that also ignores a new problem: lengthy wait times for test results that are hindering efforts to reopen businesses.
And instead of convening daily briefings with the administration’s coronavirus task force or speaking regularly with his health experts, Trump in meetings has delivered extended rants about his diminished standing and complained that he isn’t being credited for his early work meant to combat the virus, people familiar with the matter said.
Aside from vague promises that a vaccine is coming soon – a topic that in private he has appeared most intently focused on, aides said, rather than containing the current surges – Trump has largely spent his time on other issues this week.
He has convened multiple sessions focused on law enforcement at the White House, including a roundtable on Monday during which participants went around the table to recount their positive experiences with police officers, including a woman whose purse was stolen.
He traveled two days later to Georgia – not to discuss the state’s rapidly rising case count but a rollback in regulations meant to spur infrastructure projects (Atlanta’s mayor later accused him of breaking the law by not wearing a mask at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport).
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted Thursday the President is “doing a lot of things at once” and has other things in addition to coronavirus to spend his time on. She suggested he’ll appear more focused on the pandemic next week.
“I think you’ll be hearing more about what we’re doing in the coming week. He’s hard at work,” she said. “He’s doing a lot of things at once. That’s the great thing about the Trump administration.”
Yet at some point on Wednesday, aides gathered a collection of products from the manufacturer Goya – including chocolate wafers, coconut milk, adobo seasoning and both red and white kidney beans – to display on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office so Trump could pose, thumbs up, in support of a brand that’s being boycotted because its CEO praised Trump during a White House event last week.
On Wednesday, Trump took a step he hopes will improve his political standing: swapping out his campaign manager Brad Parscale for Bill Stepien, a more seasoned operative Trump hopes can help resuscitate his badly damaged reelection prospects.
Yet multiple people close to the President, including several senior officials inside the White House, believe the only way to turn around Trump’s campaign will be to address the one issue he seems resistant to confront: the out of control pandemic still ravaging much of the nation.
“Brad’s not the one going off message,” one senior White House official said. “Brad’s not the one refusing to wear a mask. He’s (Trump) not focused. Everyone has told him that. Nothing has changed.”
Polls this week have shown widespread disapproval for how Trump has handled the pandemic. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday showed 62% of voters disapprove of how the President has handled coronavirus. The same percentage say Trump is hurting rather than helping efforts to slow the outbreak.
Even 18% of Republicans said in the survey they disapproved of how Trump is handling coronavirus and is actively harming efforts to contain it.
“Trump’s strongest card, the economy, shredded by a killer virus, may have left the President with no go-to issue or trait to stave off defeat,” the survey’s analyst Tim Malloy said, “not leadership, not empathy, not foreign policy, and certainly not his handling of Covid-19.”
No cohesive strategy
Yet faced with those numbers – which, though they are now worsening, have remained negative for months – Trump has not demonstrated a willingness to adopt a more cohesive strategy to confront the virus or at least allow the country’s top public health experts to take charge.
While Trump did agree to wear a mask during a visit to Walter Reed National Medical Center last weekend after extended pleading from his advisers, he continues to largely ignore the realities of the surging pandemic in other areas.
He has continued to push for reopenings even while experts like Fauci encourage states with new surges in cases to return to earlier phases, that include restrictions on large gatherings. Trump has dismissed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on reopening schools, deeming them overly expensive and strict, and dismissed efforts to keep classrooms closed as political “nonsense.”
His push to reopen in the fall hasn’t necessarily convinced the nation’s largest districts; both in New York City and Los Angeles, authorities have said students won’t be returning to classrooms in the fall.
Yet even aside from schools, the administration continues to undercut the CDC, once regarded as the world’s preeminent public health agency. Trump retweeted a former game show host this week who claimed “everyone is lying” about the pandemic: “The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust.”
On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services said hospital data on coronavirus patients will now be rerouted to the Trump administration instead of first being sent to the CDC.
The move could make data less transparent to the public at a time when the administration is downplaying the spread of the pandemic, and threatens to undermine public confidence that medical data is being presented free of political interference.
After declaring himself a “wartime president” in March and briefly adopting a sober tone by warning Americans of a dire couple of weeks, Trump had all but abandoned the mantle by mid-April, insisting the country’s economy reopen and suggesting during one of his last televised coronavirus briefings that ingesting disinfectant could be a potential treatment.
It was around that time Trump last attended a formal session of the coronavirus task force, a panel whose influence with the President has waned dramatically even as the pandemic sets records for daily case counts.
While Trump continues to hear regularly about the state of the outbreak from Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the task force and has been traveling to hotspots, he does not receive regular briefings from Fauci or other health experts. Instead, information from the task force is compiled and delivered to others to brief the President.
How much that information is absorbed or internalized depends on the day and the President’s mood, people familiar with the meetings say. While Trump clearly recognizes the surge in cases, he has remained adamant that more testing has led to what appears to be an out-of-control new outbreak. In several meetings he has delivered lengthy complaints that his response to the pandemic is being negatively covered. And he has bemoaned the circumstances he now finds himself, insisting his luck is “terrible.”
When Trump emerged into the Rose Garden on Tuesday for what some of his advisers hoped would be a stately appearance announcing new actions against China while contrasting his record with rival Joe Biden’s, he instead delivered an at-times barely coherent set of remarks that only vaguely addressed how he was confronting the pandemic.
Trump has also complained in meetings about Fauci, the 79-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, who has repeatedly corrected the President’s statements or offered less rosy views of the pandemic.
After Trump raised his concerns about Fauci in a series of interviews, suggesting he had been wrong about certain things at the start of the pandemic, aides took the public comments as a sign they should also question Fauci’s record – including by distributing a list of his past statements to reporters over the weekend.
The backlash was swift, including from several top allies of the President, who said it was both self-destructive and a waste of time to be publicly undercutting one of the most trusted public health voices in the administration.
“Getting in a contest with Dr. Fauci about whether he was right or wrong, doesn’t move the ball forward,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, an informal adviser to the President, said on Tuesday.
Yet even as Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows was orchestrating a détente – including during a lengthy meeting with Fauci in his West Wing office – another top aide, Peter Navarro, was submitting an eight-paragraph diatribe against Fauci to the editorial page of USA Today.
The newspaper said on Wednesday they had solicited the article directly from Navarro as a response to their own editorial defending Fauci. They also said, after publication, that some of the claims were misleading and didn’t meet their fact-checking standards.
CNN’s Jim Acosta and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.